The Great Reckoning: Leadership & Innovation In A Time Of COVID, CRISPR & Climate Change
After the initial shock and stress of the pandemic, it is time for us leaders to start engaging fully with the post-pandemic world—for there are tougher and hitherto unprecedented challenges on the near horizon. They cannot be ignored. The planet, and her people, cannot wait.
The last 18 months have been a time of intense and unprecedented challenges for all leaders. Every one of us has had to weather the storm of the pandemic, navigating as best we can through the fog and high seas. The priority has simply been to keep the sails on the ship; and the ship from capsizing. But the need for genuine organizational transformation to adapt to the emergent world has only just begun.
After the initial shock and stress of the pandemic, it is time to start engaging fully with the post-pandemic world. There are more, tougher, and hitherto unprecedented challenges on the near horizon. They cannot be ignored. The planet, and her people, cannot wait.
Harsh Post-Pandemic Truths
After Covid-19, we are all more aware than ever of:
- How quickly emerging technology is being mainstreamed, from CRISP-enabled mRNA vaccines to Machine Learning algorithms revolutionizing supply chains
- How economic inequality and ethnic prejudice lead to heightened chances of ill-health and childhood trauma
- How precarious so many people’s livelihoods are, whether in the gig economy or on climate-change impacted land
- How so many workers on the frontlines of hospitals or factories are feeling empowered to demand better conditions and pay vociferously—challenging the existing low-cost industrial model
- How pollution is profoundly impacting our children’s brains and our shared wellbeing
- How fast the climate crisis is unfolding, and the cataclysmic impacts this is having on people everywhere
- How angry and discordant the civic space is, how upset so may are with structural injustice and racism, and how the Culture Wars cause so many poor outcomes for so many
- How profoundly disenfranchised and unpurposeful so white-collar workers feel—and how attractive new pasture looks
- How unstable economic growth is, with an uncertain future of potential stagflation—and the reaching of peak global consumption
- How fragile political stability is—and that we cannot take democracy, even in the US or Europe, for-granted
- How unlikely it is that governments making deals and agreements will solve our climate change issues in an effective and timely way
- How likely there are to be more Covid variants (pi, rho, sigma…) that disrupt our lives and livelihoods—and more pandemics and existential threats to our health (like antibiotic-resistant bacteria)
I believe the time has come for us to move past the intensity of the pandemic and look unflinchingly at how we as business and institutional leaders will forge, or fail, our shared future.
The time is ripe for us to fully engage with how the world is changing—and to fully discern what our stance will be as individuals and as representatives of our organization.
This is the Great Reckoning.
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The Great Reckoning
We can no longer shy away from accepting our shared responsibility for dealing with existential threats to our species—climate change/pollution/ecological collapse, inequality, culture wars, and worsening ill-health, both physical and mental—and economic threats to the long-term sustainability and license to operate of our organizations.
Existing climate policies commit us to a potentially-devastating 2.4C—2.9C of global warming, even after COP26. Catastrophic changes are already happening and we haven’t even reached 1.5C yet.
Crises, of the Covid and Climate variety, tend not to create new truths but accelerate what is already breaking down; and already breaking through. Covid didn’t start the boom of Zoom, online shopping, and grocery deliveries, but it did rapidly accelerate the transition to distributed and digital ways of working and consuming. The freak floods in Germany and the UK, and the rampant fires in the US and Australia, have not introduced people to the urgency of climate disruption; but they have shaken many people to wake up and get in action. CRISPR wasn’t invented to create mRNA vaccines, but it certainly was useful in accelerating their creation and saving millions of lives.
There is a saying in leadership to never waste a good crisis. I believe it is incumbent for all leaders to engage fully—without either denial or melodrama—in the state of our world; and to go through the transformative process of metabolizing these changes into insights and ideas for how to transform our own products, services, business models, and operating models to fit the future rather than fail it.
Three Transformative Questions To Engage With The Great Reckoning
To get you started on what will be a journey that lasts the rest of your time as a leader and changemaker, here are three questions to engage with:
- Where in your business model and leadership style are you disconnected from the accelerating digital revolution and/or hyper fast-changing customer needs? [or, “Where are you holding onto market share through outdated power structures that are vulnerable to disruption by more agile, tech-enabled, and user-empowering innovations rather than confidently building exponential value propositions that harness digital technologies for a thriving future?”]
- Where in your business model and leadership style are you dislocated from the fragile places and earth-bound limits of our gloriously fertile planet? [or, “Where are you hoping for the best on climate change and/or trusting in off-setting and, as yet unproven, technologies—rather than intentionally transforming into a planet-positive and regenerative organization, which might mean sacrificing short-term profit for long-term viability, investor loyalty, and a license to operate?”]
- Where in your business model and leadership style are you disassociated from poverty, precarity, and prejudice? [or, “Where are you delivering for privileged investors, customers, and staff and failing to serve the very real pain points of everyone else—and how is this diminishing the trust, wellbeing, resilience, and creativity of your people and your own purpose, energy, integrity, and legacy as a leader?”]
There can be no easily-judged ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers here. The world is way too rich and complex for moral platitudes, no matter what some activists say.
And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Rainer Maria Rilke
But these are the uncomfortable and inconvenient questions that every leader must ask and answer if we want to be truly transformational—and confidently and consciously lead our people, organization, and system towards a thriving future in our era of disruption, complexity, uncertainty, and existential threat.
But we simply have not been given the education, training, or tools to cope with complexity and change in our minds and hearts; nor have most of us taken the time to study and embody the wisdom needed to avoid the conventional reactions to challenges of such magnitude and import: denial, repression, distraction, addiction, blame, and other avoidance tactics.
A lack of transformational leadership often manifests as rampant cost-cutting exercises, re-orgs, reactive lobbying, costly acquisitions, expensive strategy consultancy engagements, and endless change projects… all that fail to transform the business.
I liken the challenges ahead—the pain-fuelled but possibility-filled reality of the Great Reckoning—to a 12-Dimensional Backgammon game that we have to play with a blindfold on, with our bank manager / main shareholders on the phone worried… whilst we grieve for a much-loved parent, work through our own experience of aging, and deal with a pair of hangry toddlers who are sitting on our knees.
But this is the leadership invitation we have all been given. It’s the only one of truth in our interesting times.
The Unprecedented Opportunities
If you’re still reading, it may mean that this is your time. Already our kids and grandkids will face 3x the number of climate disasters we did: “twice as many wildfires, 1.7 times as many tropical cyclones, 3.4 times more river floods, 2.5 times more crop failures, and 2.3 times as many droughts as someone born in 1960.”
In Germany, flying insects have declined by 76% in 26 years. In the UK, common butterfly populations have fallen by 46% since 1976.
We cannot leave the Great Reckoning for later generations.
And let’s be clear: there are no boltholes we can disappear to with our nest-egg that we can avoid the incoming. New Zealand is at risk of storms, fires, and viruses just like any other part of the world. It is also destabilizing with the pandemic along class and racial lines.
As well as existential threats to ourselves and our organizations, there are also endless possibilities for expansion, meaning, and legacy within the Great Reckoning—and a whole world of sustainable innovations and purpose-driven inventions we can usher in to regenerate our crisis-hit world.
All we have to do is… switch on and step up. Then we can find ways to secure our organizations from evolutionary pressures that will make them obsolete and irrelevant before long… and, at the same time, harness our organizations to secure our species from evolutionary pressures that are making human life more painful and stressful than ever before.
I believe we can find creative ways to decouple economic growth from carbon—and reduce consumption by recoupling our lives to the joys of human connection.
This will only happen through our ingenuity, transformative capacities, and care as leaders.
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Everything Is Possible
This is an unprecedented challenge. So we need to be unprecedented leaders. We need to be truly transformational leaders.
I have spent my adult life understanding what is needed to lead lasting, positive, and necessary change at this level (my last book attempts to set out the challenges, the threats, the opportunities—and the pathway of transformation that is always available in such times of crisis).
It can be done. It must be done. Those who do it will live a life of ultimate meaning, hope, and purpose. We all have to live into these questions and find the solutions that fit our organization’s unique culture, history, place, people, and purpose. There are no quick fixes—or simple, silver bullet solutions to learn from an MBA program or to glean from blue-chip strategy consultancies.
However, as an enterprise dedicated to understanding and unlocking transformation, our research, practice, and experience on the frontlines of disruption have taught us that the pathway of this leadership and organizational transformation is consistent for us all. This is because we all have the same (more or less!) biology and psychology to contend with.
Having served and supported 70,000+ leaders—and led 100+ strategic innovation and transformation processes—we believe that the process of leading and landing transformation follows the same blueprint. We can all become masters at leading ourselves, and others, along it.
So I invite you to embrace the Great Reckoning—and to fearlessly ask and answer the call, and the questions, that face you.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And being only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Hillel The Elder
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